Genghis Khan, Prithvi Narayan Shah, and Changing Last Names

As a kid, I didn’t like my last name very much, but over the years, it’s grown on me. So I never thought I’d change it after I got married. Last summer I was pretty solid in my decision and didn’t do anything about it after we tied the knot.

When I got to Nepal, though, I realized how useful it was to have a Nepali last name, so I started using Tri’s last name when I introduced myself or had to fill out forms. Sometimes people wouldn’t realize that I was a foreigner when I used his last name, which was a plus. I remember one time when the nurse at a doctor’s office told me to write Tri’s last name on a form (instead of my own) so that I could be billed as a Nepali instead of a foreigner. The price difference was huge.

My first name is not Zoe (which is actually my middle name) although I’ve always been called Zoe by friends and family. My legal first name is much easier to pronounce in Nepali, and is even used in Nepal as a name. So if I really wanted my name to sound Nepali, I’d write my first name and Tri’s last name together.

I loved it. It felt like I had multiple identities and I could switch back and forth between my Nepali alias and my American one. In the US, however, things are more cut and dried and there are people keeping track of these things. Legally I still haven’t adopted Tri’s last name. It wasn’t easy for me to make it official while I was in Nepal, but now that we’re back, I need to get the ball rolling. Honestly, I’ve been kind of lazy about getting a new license and changing my social security card. I guess there’s been a lot going on, but I’m hesitant about it too. It feels final. In Nepal, I could pretty much use whatever name I wanted to, but here I’ve got to choose and stick to one.

When I feel uncertain about something or am trying to make a decision, looking back at what people used to do always helps me feel better. By no means am I a history buff (it was my least favorite subject in school), but sometimes figuring out how others have done it helps me understand how to move forward.

Tri has been reading a lot about Genghis Khan lately. He keeps stopping me every once in a while to read me an interesting fact or tidbit about the esteemed conqueror. We started talking about Genghis Khan’s name and what it meant. Apparently khan is a title used in Mongolian to mean “leader.” According to the books that Tri has been reading, the title spread to South Asia and was taken up by people there. Khan is now a pretty common last name found in Pakistan and India.

Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler who unified Nepal

While we were talking about name changes, Tri reminded me of the Shah rulers in Nepal. Prithvi Narayan Shah, the most famous Shah, conquered and unified a lot of what is present-day Nepal. He suggested that their last name may also have been an adopted one. It’s a name of Persian origin meaning “king.” I don’t mean to go barreling into the history of names in South Asia, but it’s comforting to remember that people change their names for a lot of reasons and that it’s not that uncommon.

But I don’t need to go all the way to South Asia to remind myself of that. A lot of women in my family changed their names after marriage. Other ancestors did as well when they came to the US. My father’s father’s parents came to the US from the Ukraine in the early 20th century and changed their name on the way in.  Another ancestor was born in Norway but didn’t end up in a great family situation. He was brought over to the US and adopted by a German man. My ancestor changed his name to his adopted father’s, which remains my mother’s maiden name today. Somehow, hearing about others’ name changes makes me feel okay about changing my own more permanently.

I feel strongly about my last name. It’s not the prettiest or daintiest of names, but it’s mine. Changing it around or adding onto it is okay, though. I want to take Tri’s name because it connects us and reflects my connection to his family, but I’ll keep my own too because it connects me to my maiti (parental home) and my past.

The next step is getting my butt in gear to make it official :)

7 thoughts on “Genghis Khan, Prithvi Narayan Shah, and Changing Last Names

  1. Growing up with an adopted Jewish surname I was not only accepted in the Jewish community it was assumed by my Jewish friends that somewhere in the past I must have Jewish Ancestors. After marrying a Jew and taking his surname that was changed upon entry to the U.S. and no longer identifiable as Jewish the Jewish community assumed again I must be the Jewish member of the family. I have always been very comfortable in that role.
    Recently researching my ancestors I may have found our lost Norwegian Great Grandfather and confirmed our several hundred years of European heritage. This does throw a wrench in the works. My husband can not trace his ancestors before arriving in the U.S. in 1860. His only clue is that he is Jewish through and through no doubts that is who he is. I have given him a DNA test to help identify which tribe he can claim and he has hesitated to complete the test. Sometime if we are comfortable with who we are we don’t need to know the rest.

    • Interesting that uncle doesn’t want to get the DNA test done. I think you’re right that sometimes we can get to that place where we don’t need to know and we’re just comfortable with who we are.

  2. I like the idea of putting a Nepali name down on forms in Nepal and being charges as a Nepali instead of a foreigner. When we were in Nepal in 2009 we both went to the Dentist and my bill was a lot larger! ;)

    As you know, I’m a fan of keeping both names– I like that I’m still a “C” but then “P” adds some Nepali credibility. I also like using P’s name (in conjunction) with mine professionally, as since I work with international students I feel it gives me some street cred with them as well ;)

    • I hate how foreigners are billed in Nepal! I used to get worked up about it, but I found some solace in being able to slip by unnoticed with a Nepali last name :)

  3. You’ve taken the words right out of my mouth, Zoe! My experiences with the last name thing have been very similar to yours. The part about the fluidity of name usage in South Asia particularly resonated with me. In fact, it is so fluid that on my first day of teaching English in New Delhi last year, I introduced myself to the little kids as Mrs. [Indian husband’s last name], and was introduced by another teacher to the older kids as Ashley Ma’am. I’m still not sure how I will be called by my students while student teaching in the US this fall. I know they won’t be using my first name, but I’m not sure which last name will give me more credibility in their eyes, my very-generic “American” last name, or my husband’s very-Indian one.

    After going through a phase in my younger years where I thought I’d be happy to finally rid myself of everything associated with my last name, I’ve actually come to quite like it. It’s one of the simplest, most common names you will find in America, but it’s mine and I’d like to keep it, thank you very much. I’ve been using my two last names (my last name + my husband’s last name) informally, e.g. on facebook and snail mail letters to friends and family, and I like the way it feels, complete. I also haven’t even begun to look into the process of legally changing my name to include my husband’s for the same reasons you’ve mentioned – the hassles and headaches involved! We are also in the middle of applying for our green card and PIO card (essentially my green card to India), so that would complicate things times a million. So, if I do decide to change my name legally, it probably won’t be for a while. If things were a little more flexible here, I probably wouldn’t bother with making the change legally. However, it could cause confusion if, say, someone were to write me a check using both of my last names when I only have my maiden name on my bank account.

    Keep us updated on the setbacks and successes you have in the process!

    • I never even thought about the check thing :/ I could see it getting really complicated, which is making me want to sort out my last name sooner rather than later. By the way, I love your two last names! They sound awesome together :)

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